The term “Dark Souls-like” has lost a lot of its original meaning; now being applied to nearly any game that’s somewhat challenging and includes a death/recovery mechanic. Using that term to describe a game is usually part of its marketing campaign, hoping to draw in a percentage of the Dark Souls crowd with the promise of a similar experience. Such is how I first came to know about Below, the latest title from Capybara Games, which promised a fresh take on the genre. Whilst it does include many of the trappings of the games that inspired it Below’s added mechanics do nothing to improve the experience, instead turning it into a slower, less rewarding experience that simply bored me. There might be something buried deeper within the game that might interest me but I simply didn’t find enough to keep me interested past the first couple hours.
Below is a tale of a string of adventurers who venture to an island and set about exploring what lies below its surface. There is only ever one of them and should one die another will arrive to take their place. As I understand it there’s more to the story, potentially locked behind the game’s main collectibles or maybe in other areas I didn’t explore but I simply didn’t have the patience to find out. That could partly be due to the game’s irritatingly long opening cutscene which adds nothing to the story and only serves to make you think the game is stuck trying to load.
The game’s visuals are simple, utilising the low-poly aesthetic that has proven popular over the last couple years. It’s also very dark 90% of the time with much of the environment hidden from view. This is then cast in stark relief when there’s any kind of lightsource, illuminating a world that’s brimming with colour and detail. Whilst the decision to hide much of the environment away from you is purely a mechanical one (which is core to the game) it is a bit of a shame that the game’s beauty is hidden from you. That being said when the game does showcase itself to you through the use of generous particle and lighting effects the results are quite stunning.
At its heart Below is a roguelike, throwing you into procedurally generated environments that you reveal as you wander through them. Everything is dark, something which you can alleviate through the use of torches or your lantern, the latter of which consumes gems that enemies drop. In addition to the standard health gauge you also have 3 others: food, water and heat. The first two deplete slowly over time, needing to be replenished by finding a water source or finding food respectively. The last only comes into play in certain sections and will deplete quickly, needing to be refilled by sitting next to a fire. There’s also a crafting system, enabling you to fashion numerous helpful items including elixirs that will give you certain benefits for a short time. All in all whilst Below is a simple game on the surface there’s certainly a good depth to the mechanics. The main problem is that they’re just not particularly enjoyable.
Combat is a pretty straightforward affair as you’re equipped with a sword and shield that function as you’d expect. Most enemies in the beginning simply run at you and die in a single hit but they quickly evolve into more complex enemies with varied movesets. The health system is a little different in that taking damage will turn part of your health red which, if you’re quick enough, can be bandaged up. However to recover health that’s been completely lost you’ll need to find food. It’s definitely on the challenging side but it didn’t feel as punishing as the Souls games were when I first started playing them. Combat isn’t what bored me about Below though, it was the exploration and survival mechanics.
Exploring the levels is meant to be part of the challenge, and that I’m on board with, however having to go back through them to find level keys or other things in order to progress is a real chore. This is made worse by the fact that when you die the level gets regenerated again, meaning you have to not only fight your way back to your body at a disadvantage, the path to get there won’t be the same. This made death more of a chore than I felt it needed to be, even when I had the closest bonfire available for me to travel to. I didn’t even die that many times during my time with Below either, maybe 2 or 3, but even that was enough for me to want to stop playing.
The survival mechanics only exacerbate that issue, forcing you to dedicate even more time to keeping those meters filled. The water one is usually easy enough, either you just need to remember where a pool was or keep plodding along and you’ll eventually find one, but the food is a different story. It seemed early on in the game I’d get enough to keep me going, not enough for a large stockpile but sufficient to ensure I wasn’t constantly in peril, but later on that petered out completely. Even hunting everything in sight didn’t net me enough food to stop me from starving, clocking up another death because I simply couldn’t find enough food. Sure, this could be RNGesus screwing me over just that once, but that’s exactly the reason I usually steer clear of Roguelikes. Reading through other reviews it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way either, so hopefully the developers address it (maybe even make a mode that has it removed and blocks your achievements or something).
Below is a mechanically deep and well crafted game that struggles to capture your attention. The environments are truly beautiful, something which is unfortunately only revealed to you in fits and starts when you’re able to use a precious light source to see them. Combat is simple but challenging enough to be rewarding which is a hard balance to strike. Unfortunately the real let down of the game is in the exploration and survival mechanics that do little more than add tedium to the game. This is why I put it down after just 2 hours of game time, I simply couldn’t drive myself on with it any longer. Perhaps there’s something beyond level 4 that might’ve enticed me to stay but I’ll never know.
Below is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $22.49. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
A sizeable percentage of the games I own are wholly or in part due to my feelings of nostalgia towards them. Some are originals, games I keep around because of the fond memories I have of playing them and have grand ideas of going back to replay them one day. Others are there because they invoke the feelings of that era, with simpler graphics and without all the trimmings that modern games bring with them. STRAFE got attention and Kickstarter backing because of the latter, promising to bring the best of what the 90s shooters had to offer. Unfortunately all it seems to have done is provide a strong reminder of how far we’ve come.
You play as an unnamed “scrapper”, a person who’s job is to collect scrap so they can get paid. Your corporation has sent you to the ship Icarus which is on the outer limits of humanity’s reach in space. No other scrapper has returned alive from the Icarus so, the logic goes, surely its littered with tons of scrap just waiting for collection. Of course the corporation takes no responsibility for what happens to you whilst you’re there so it’s up to you, dear scrapper to make sure you stay alive. That’s about all the motivation you’re given before being thrown back several decades to a low poly hell filled with monsters, scrap and a varying array of weapons.
STRAFE comes to us via the Unity engine which, for once, isn’t to blame for the way the game looks. The visuals are reminiscent of the early Quake era although its obvious that the textures are much higher resolution and the low poly models likely having several times more polys in them than they did back in the 90s. The aesthetics are quite confusing at times, making it extremely hard to work out things like what constitutes a door or an elevator at a glance. Due to the game’s fast paced action and use of semi-procedurally generated terrain this is a bigger deal than it would be in other games as it can make it quite hard to actually figure out just where the hell in a level you are. Overall it does a good job of emulating the 90s shooter experience, warts and all.
STRAFE is a fast paced FPS centred on clearing a level as fast as you can whilst discovering all the secrets and collecting as much scrap as you can. The levels are semi-procedurally generated, a random grab bag of rooms selected and then cobbled together every time you load a new section. What this means is that secrets will never be in the same place, enemies will never be where you expect them to be and, most annoyingly of all, the vendors where you can buy ammo/armour/upgrades are never where you need them to be. The variety of enemies is low and the challenge comes from the game throwing ever more of them at you whilst you struggle to find enough ammo to take them all out.
Now I’m as much of a fan of spammy, fast paced combat as the next person but STRAFE’s was just straight up boring and frustrating. Sure it was fun to line up a bunch of enemies and take them out with a grenade, but having to do that 20 times over per level meant it lost its lustre very quickly. The weapons also felt very samey, none of them feeling particularly unique or interesting in their own right. Couple this with the deluge of samey enemies and you’ve got a recipe for combat that’s uninteresting, repetitive and frustrating. I honestly couldn’t play for more than 15 mins at a time before getting horrendously bored and giving it up for another day or two, it was that bad.
Some may say that it’s simply too hard for someone like me or I don’t enjoy this kind of challenge. To counter that argument I’d point you to my reviews of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III both games which punish its players but I found far more rewarding than anything STRAFE had to provide. Sure, I’ll grant you those games probably had several times the budget that STRAFE did but the point still stands: I do enjoy a good challenge and I don’t believe STRAFE provides one. Instead it provides a samey, randomised experience that does far more to frustrate than it does to challenge and reward the player.
STRAFE had grand ideas of being the best 90s shooter ever but falls incredibly short of that mark. Indeed whilst STRAFE borrows a lot of elements from FPS games of yesteryear, like its visuals and fast paced action, it fails to do much with them in order to make a good gaming experience. The visuals, whilst staying largely true to the 90s formula, are a visually confusing mess that only serves to amplify the game’s less than stellar qualities. The combat is repetitive with a distinct lack of variety in weapons, enemies and level design. The Roguelike elements simply add another level of frustration rather than challenge, leaving this reviewer feeling that his time was better spent playing almost anything else in his library.
STRAFE is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.96. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours played.